Every so often, people ask me “Why did she/he wait so long to report their abuser? – Must be about the money!”
I hope the following will not just educate those, but also help them to understand the many reasons which stop ‘survivors’ coming forward.
It is not unusual for victims who were sexually abused as children to wait until adulthood to make the abuse public. Telling the story of the abuse is reliving it all over again …
Allegations of sexual abuse are “historical” in two ways. First, they pertain to incidents of abuse that are often decades old.
Second, it is no exaggeration to say that these allegations are remaking history. These disclosures of abuse challenge our cultural memory and collective understandings of public figures. They tell a more complex and disturbing story than the version of history that we are most familiar with.
Understandably, the credibility and substance of these allegations has come under considerable scrutiny. Why didn’t victims say anything at the time? And is it justified to pursue their allegations now, decades after the fact?
At times, these questions have had a legalistic and sceptical tone to them. They recall entrenched myths that a rape victim who doesn’t raise “hue and cry” immediately after the event is untrustworthy.
An immediate complaint of sexual abuse is relatively unusual. It is more common for children to delay talking about the abuse or to never report it.
According to a study, 1 in 5 of all childhood abuse sufferers wait decades before disclosing the abuse. In fact, 16% of women never tell, while a full 34% of men will keep it a secret forever.
Both genders are more likely to report the abuse if the abuser was a stranger, and not a family member
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience an array of overwhelming and intense feelings.
These may include feelings of fear, guilt, and shame. Abusers have been known to tell children that it is the fault of the child that they are abused, shifting the blame away from the abuser, where it belongs, and placing it on the child.
Along with this, abusers may threaten or bribe the child into not speaking up; convincing the child that he or she will never be believed.
The reaction of a survivor’s friends and family to the disclosure of the abuse also has the potential to trigger immense feelings of guilt, shame and distrust, particularly if those individuals denied that the abuse was taking place, or from others who chose to ignore it
A report from the Rape Crisis Network found that survivors of child sexual abuse who contacted the organisation had waited an average of 25 years to report the abuse.
The report also found that 65% of survivors of child sexual abuse said they were abused when they were under 12 years old.
The figures reveal that home was one of the most dangerous places for those who suffered child sexual abuse.
A quarter of all male survivors and 37% of female survivors of child sexual abuse disclosed that the abuse took place in their own home.
Disclosure is not an event but a process. Many factors are at play in enabling or constraining a child to speak directly about abuse and bringing that complaint to the attention of the authorities.
The age and development of the child, the relationship of the child to the perpetrator, the severity of the abuse and the availability of support dynamically shape the disclosure process.
Many victims feel that they have lost control of their lives and have lost their self-esteem over the years.
Some find it very difficult to deal with the aspects of the crime, especially when they have to talk to other people about what happened.
They may have kept their experiences secret for years and are worried about the effect that ‘going public’ will have on their family and other people around them.
This means you may be feeling some very intense emotions.
Adults who were abused when they were young often say they can feel traumatised, frightened, guilty, powerless, angry, ashamed and depressed, or find it difficult to eat, sleep or concentrate.
If you were assaulted by someone you know, the effects may be even greater. As well as the experience itself you’ve had your trust abused at an early point in your life and this can have lasting effects on your relationship with other people
Childhood abuse can be classified as: physical abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse.
While each consists of different experiences, with some variations in resulting difficulties for the victim, each involves a violation of the child’s trust in an adult or authority figure — a parent, babysitter, sibling, older friend, coach, teacher, clergy, and so on.
And each has many similar effects.
When children are exposed to abuse, they learn to protect themselves by: denial, withdrawal, approval-seeking, turning off their feelings, by acting out, and by self-blame.
Using these coping mechanisms in childhood has long-term consequences, which can include: lack of trust, a fear of change and resultant difficulty in adjusting, difficulty knowing or showing one’s own feelings, being easily stressed and acting on that by abusing substances, food, and one’s own body, and feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth.
Of course, disclosing abuse isn’t just about the victim. It’s also about other sufferers, who may feel less alone, and more empowered to come forward.
For example when a victim reports that he was abused as an altar boy, it may have brought him some kind of closure, but it also makes it easier for other men and boys — who are twice as likely as women to keep sexual abuse a secret — to come forward.
If enough people realize that being an abuse victim should carry no stigma, then perhaps fewer men and women will have to wait, in some cases decades before they open up about their pain.
Negative and shaming reactions to sexual abuse disclosures have been shown to significantly increase the risk of mental illness and distress in the victim. Feeling betrayed is corrosive to mental wellbeing.
In “historical” allegations, the years that elapse between abuse and a court case are often indicative of the long journey that survivors take to recover from abuse and find a forum in which their complaint will be heard. Initial disclosures of abuse are likely to be to friends, partners and other people who the survivor trusts.
The disclosure paradox
The paradox is that, in order to detect sexual abuse, we depend on abused children to speak out, but they are often in environments in which they can’t rely on support or understanding.
In this impossible situation, non-disclosure is a way that victims of abuse protect themselves from further betrayal and harm. Extricating themselves from un-supportive environments and finding opportunities to speak about their abuse is a complex and fragile process that can take many years.
It seems that the pertinent question in “historical” abuse allegations is not:
Why didn’t victims say something at the time?
Rather, it should be:
Why do abuse victims have to wait so long to speak and be heard?
Dissociation was used by many of us to deal with the abuse as children and adults. In situations of trauma dissociation is an automatic process. It protected us as children or victims in situations where we could not run or fight.
For many of us it saved our sanity.
The more severe or protracted the abuse, the more the child will use dissociation to escape the horror or pain of a given situation.
Survivors carry this skill into their adult life, continuing to use it as a way of avoiding difficulties in their lives. Many are not aware that they are dissociating as the process has become so automatic.
Part of the journey of recovery from the trauma of child abuse involves learning to stay present while facing the reality of one’s trauma.